The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Nationals moved fast at the start of last offseason. This one is already different.

Mike Rizzo was quick to the market last offseason. He has yet to make a move this year, with the GM meetings beginning Monday, and that's to be expected given the internal decisions he still has to work out. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — By the time Mike Rizzo arrived in Carlsbad, Calif., for last year’s general managers meetings, he had already added two players to step ahead of a slow-moving market. Rizzo, the Washington Nationals’ general manager, had made Trevor Rosenthal the first free agent signing of the 2018-19 MLB offseason. That came just weeks after the Nationals traded for reliever Kyle Barraclough. If teams were wading into the winter — and 29 of them were — Rizzo dived headfirst and started checking items off a to-do list.

Now, after they have won the World Series, there is no shortage of questions for the Nationals to address. Their pace just promises to be much steadier.

The GM meetings began at the Omni Resorts here Monday. The Nationals, just 12 days removed from a title, arrived with holes to fill at catcher, first base, second, maybe third, maybe in their rotation and definitely with their bench and bullpen. Rizzo ripped through a similar situation a year ago, acquiring those two relievers, then bringing in Kurt Suzuki, Yan Gomes, Patrick Corbin, Matt Adams and Aníbal Sánchez, in that order, before December was through. But with internal decisions to sort out — the most pressing centered on Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon — the Nationals’ plans are tethered to retaining some of the best available players or using an influx of money to replace them.

If they bring back Strasburg, they would explore only depth additions to their starting staff. If they don’t, they could jump into discussions for front-line pitchers such as Gerrit Cole or Zack Wheeler. Discussions with Strasburg are expected to move faster than with other stars. He opted out of the remaining four years and $100 million on his Nationals contract Nov. 2. He is interested in staying with Washington, according to those close to him, but the baseline price could be the seven-year, $210 million deal that Max Scherzer signed with the Nationals in January 2015.

Strasburg, 31, is coming off a career year that ended with a World Series MVP award. His agent, Scott Boras, represents Scherzer and helped construct that contract four years ago. Boras will be in Scottsdale for the meetings. But he has someone stationed with Strasburg, near his offseason home outside Washington, in case talks gain traction in the near future. There are a lot of clubs that need starting pitching, including two — the Los Angeles Angels and San Diego Padres — near Strasburg’s hometown of San Diego. The Nationals have already begun negotiating a new deal. Their interest is sky high. They know that everyone else’s is, as well.

If they bring back Rendon, they could shift their priorities to lower-cost additions at catcher, first base and possibly second, depending on what they envision with top prospect Carter Kieboom. But if they don’t, it could lead them to exploring third basemen Josh Donaldson or Mike Moustakas as shorter-term options. Or Yasmani Grandal, the top catcher on the market, could make sense because the Nationals declined a $9 million club option for Gomes. The offense will bring back centerpieces in Juan Soto, Trea Turner, Adam Eaton and Victor Robles, but the Nationals would need to act swiftly if Rendon falls out of its blueprint. Losing him and Bryce Harper in back-to-back offseasons cannot be addressed without spending.

Rendon and the Nationals traded proposals throughout this past season, but none were able to keep him from testing the open market. Washington’s latest offer was for seven years and between $210 million and $215 million in early September. Boras, Rendon’s agent, countered, and the Nationals did not accept the terms. That Boras was still negotiating then, less than two months before the start of free agency, suggests Rendon remains interested in returning. But those negotiations also showed that the sides are still far apart.

And the hang-ups for the Nationals don’t end with Strasburg and Rendon. Ryan Zimmerman is a free agent and willing to come back on a cheap deal. Gomes, Howie Kendrick, Daniel Hudson, Asdrúbal Cabrera, Brian Dozier, Fernando Rodney and Gerardo Parra were also on the World Series roster before becoming free agents.

The Nationals can’t keep all of the players who led them to their first championship. They may cut a handful of them loose. Because those decisions will shape their plans, and dictate what they need and don’t need in the coming weeks, this offseason will inch into gear. Re-signing Strasburg or Rendon, or both, would greatly alter Washington’s financial planning. Zimmerman could fill one of two openings at first base. Kendrick could fill the other and pad the bench if the Nationals want to compete with the American League teams that will court the NL Championship Series MVP as a designated hitter. Cabrera could be a utility infielder and pinch hitter from both sides of the plate. Hudson could kick-start the construction of the bullpen for 2020.

But Rizzo will have to balance nostalgia with practicality. He will have to attack his to-do list, another lengthy one, with any number of contingencies. And because of that, because of all the Nationals don’t know, he will have to slow down.

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